In 2014 the Canadian Mental Health Commission (CMHC) released a disturbing report estimating 14 to 25 percent, (1.2 million) children and youth in Canada, are experiencing significant mental health conditions – yet only 20 percent of these children will receive appropriate treatment during their school years. The rest of these children are trying to function in school with little to no help. Two-thirds of the adults who are presently experiencing a mental health condition report their symptoms first appeared during their youth, with half of these difficulties surfacing before the age of fourteen. Once these children leave high school, they head towards university or college where they continue to suffer and struggle. Yet I recently read a report from a local politician where he said, “Our government understands that student success from early education to post-secondary education is fundamental is keeping Saskatchewan (us) strong. That’s why we aim to put students first in everything we do.” He is obviously only thinking about those students who achieve academically, because the students who struggle in our North American educational settings are ignored.
Most colleges in the United Sates, track these children and these statistics plus the ones tracked by CMHC strongly indicates there is a group of children who are being ignored or marginalized and my own research suggests they are often punished because of their behaviour. According to Benjamin Locke, associate director for clinical services at Pen State, one in three students now starts college with a prior diagnosis of mental disorder. Ten percent of those seeking services in 2014 had previously been hospitalized for mental health concerns, says Locke who as head of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) compiles an annual report summarizing counselling intake data from more than 100,000 students at 140 schools. So now all students entering Penn State take an online mental health course before arriving on campus. Eisenberg’s Healthy Minds Study indicates that 19 percent of all college students regularly take psychotropic meds- antidepressants, anxiolytics and stimulants such as Adderall. And according to the 2014 CCMH study, 24 percent of students purposely injure themselves without the intent to commit suicide. The number is slowly increasing, up from 21 percent in 2008.
Academic or social stress, late-night cram sessions or any disruption of routine in the campus environment can shatter the student’s stability. Distress on campus takes a variety of forms, but far and away the leading concern in 2015 is anxiety – 54 percent of all college students report feeling overwhelming anxiety, up from 46.4 percent in 2010, according to the latest semi-annual survey conducted by the American College Health Association. That wasn’t always the case. Until recently, anxiety vied with disabling depression and relationship problems until about five years ago, when child psychologists agree, anxiety began outstripping other concerns. And each year the divide increases, says Micky Sharma, director of student counselling at Ohio State University. “For 47 percent of clients seeking counselling – anxiety is the primary complaint. Students feel overwhelmed. They can’t manage.” In Cornel University’s latest survey of students, 38 percent of undergraduates said that they had been unable to function academically for more than a week. Even in my own practise, I couldn’t help but become alarmed at the rising number of referrals for anxiety.
Much of this anxiety is socially driven. “Students feel inept about romantic relationships,” observes David Wallace, head of counselling at the University of Missouri. Students have difficulties establishing relationships, handling conflict within them, and enduring breakups. Anxiety is a by-product of thinking, but it is incapacitating without the ability to apply critical thinking skills to emotional reactions. Students with anxiety type issues are missing these skills.
Experts find it difficult to pinpoint why there is such an alarming amount of suffering children. It may be that lacking the ability to emotionally regulate themselves, students feel things especially intensely – beyond their ability to articulate their feelings. What ever the reason for these increases, these children all seem to lack interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Narrowing down the investigation is why are these skills missing in the younger generation?
One suggested explanation is that having had- or been allowed to have – few disappointments in their over parented, over trophied lives, many have not learned to handle difficulty. In the absence of skills to dispel disappointment, difficulty becomes catastrophe. The bottom line being – these children are missing basic life skills that needed to be taught previous to them trying to handle life on their own.
Recent research has found that there is a link between feels of distress to how much competition students face in their classes/grades/school. Of course, some competitiveness is good, a spur to excellence, but there is a threshold at which it begins to have negative psychological effects and shifts motivation from learning to performance. Perceived competitiveness, increases by 40 percent, the odds of positively screening for depression and students who reported that their classes were ‘very competitive’ had 70 percent higher odds of screening positive for anxiety.
Here’s the catch: If students felt their classmates were more teammates than rivals, more collaborative than cutthroat, they were spared the negative mental health effects of competition as peer support mitigates this effect. Unfortunately, North American schools are attuned to their status rankings, especially in the areas of math and reading, so they are less likely to address the effects of competition.
Without getting the help they need, children turn towards self-medication, the cheapest being alcohol. It is not aimed at helping themselves deal with these situations rather the purpose is total obliteration of consciousness and the rates of addiction are also rising amoung children at a younger age.
In the absence of basic coping skills, everything is a stressor. While many of us view stress as one of our top health concerns, a source not only of headaches and high blood pressure, but diabetes and depression. Stanford psychologist Alia Crum has gathered evidence that the alarm creates a mind-set that stress is negative – which paradoxically gives rise to its harmful effects on the mind and body. Yet there is a huge amount of research showing that stress enhances cognitive performance. It focuses attention, speeds up cognitive processing and allows the mind to take in gobs of new information. It makes experiences more salient, adding a sense of meaning and a source of learning, growth and progress. Crum’s work finds that people who see stress as an enhancing challenge develop a set of positive emotions. Those positive emotions allow them to engage in demanding activities without experiencing the debilitating effects of stress on body systems. Behaviour and neurological functioning cohabitate; therefore, you can’t change one without changing the other. And in a world of so many distractions and few coping skills, this negative view of stress may be causing increased rates of depression, anxiety and a host of other stress related ailments.
The current method of dealing with children is making sure not to damage their fragile emotional state or their vulnerable sense of self. Ego strength is so lacking that even in the face of concrete evidence the child will say, “It can’t be my fault, because nothing is ever my fault. It must be the teachers, other students and school’s fault.” Such thinking simply infantilizes children; it robs the child of a sense of efficacy. Many children have not been allowed to develop stress tolerance and some of the coping with their own emotions is developmentally delayed.
Hardships can be seen as an asset, that adversity can breed an array of worthy skills – grit, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, even knowing how to clean their own room. It is not that this generation glides through life. But they have their strengths, generally hidden even from themselves in an atmosphere that forefronts their weaknesses, especially if they don’t achieve high academic marks.
We need to reset our priorities in order to restore to this generation bred to believe that failure is not an option, the ability to cope with disappointment and undo the damage done by a generation of well-meaning adults. A move from, or even some flexibility within the focus on math and literature to that of a more inclusive skill based education is warranted and the politicians need a reality check.
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